Several parents pleaded with a Quebec Superior Court judge on Monday to uphold the province’s religious symbols ban in order to shield their children from being exposed to the hijab, which they believe conveys a “pernicious” sexist message.
The parents, all immigrants from Muslim-majority countries, are the first witnesses to be called by defenders of the Laicity Act in a court case brought by opponents of the law who say it is unconstitutional.
Among the most controversial provisions in the law is a prohibition on public teachers from wearing religious symbols at work.
When the trial opened last week, several teachers who wear the hijab testified the law has upended their personal and professional lives. They also stressed they wore the hijab by choice and did not seek to impart their religious beliefs on students.
On Monday, the witnesses testifying in support of the law (widely known as Bill 21) said they believed the hijab always represents sexist values, regardless of why someone decides to wear it.
“For me the hijab is a symbol of inferiority even if they [the Muslim teachers] say they don’t feel inferior or superior or equal to men. It’s a symbol of inferiority and I insist on that point,” said Ferroudja Mohand, who immigrated to Quebec from Algeria in 2011.
Mohand said she is worried that her daughter will be influenced by a teacher who wears the hijab at her school and decide take up the practice.
“Teachers must be neutral because children are impressionable,” Mohand said.
Ensaf Haidar, whose husband is the imprisoned Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, said she is “shocked” when she sees Quebec women dressed in Muslim religious clothing given how they are treated in Saudi Arabia.
“The hijab is not a good image for Quebec,” said Hadar, who fled Saudi Arabia not long before her husband’s arrest in 2012.
Djaafar Bouchilaoun, an Algerian immigrant and father of two, told the court he considered the hijab an affront to his “dignity as a man” because it supposes men are sexual threats to women.
A teacher who wears a hijab, he said, is sending “subtle messages” to children. He called the hijab a “symbol of Islamist proselytizing,” adding: “It is pernicious because of it.”
Bill 21 upholds rights of parents, lawyers argue
The parents were called by two pro-secular groups — Mouvement laïque québécois and Pour les droits des femmes du Québec — who have intervenor status in the case.
As part of their defence of the law, lawyers for Mouvement laïque québécois are arguing that rather than strip minorities of rights, Bill 21 upholds the rights of parents to have their children receive a secular education.
“This is a necessary condition for the freedom of conscience,” Guillaume Rousseau, a lawyer for the Mouvement, said in a recent interview.
Earlier on Monday, an anthropologist specializing in religions testified for the plaintiffs about whether symbols like the hijab do, in fact, proselytize.
Solange Lefebvre, a professor at the Université de Montréal, said the symbols of the major religions aren’t typically worn with the aim of converting non-believers.
She explained that the religions most associated with proselytism, such as evangelical Christianity, actually shun wearing symbols.
During a lengthy cross-examination, Lefebvre also said religious symbols aren’t always worn out of religious conviction, noting that pop culture acts like Madonna have appropriated the cross for wholly non-religious uses.
Justice Marc-Andre Blanchard asked Lefebvre if a wedding ring constituted a religious symbol. She said it depended on the context, given they are exchanged in both religious and civil ceremonies.
“Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t,” she said.